A playground coast for Glasgow along the Firth of Clyde

The Firth of Clyde has long been Glasgow’s playground, and its little towns hold a special place in the citizens’ hearts. Though the traditional glories of piers and hydropathics may have faded a little, the resorts today provide some of the best facilities in Britain for water sports. The combination of wild hills and gentler countryside in the surrounding scenery is another part of the magic that first enticed Glaswegians ‘doon the watter’.


In the 17th century, this little seaside village leaned over by wooded hills was a notorious centre of witchcraft, and in the 18th century it was a den of smugglers. Now it is remarkable chiefly for its huge power station, and for the Kip Marina, one of the largest yacht havens in Scotland, which boats can enter and leave at any state of the tide.

Near by, pleasant Lunderston Bay with its picnic site is dominated to the north by Cloch Point and a sturdy white lighthouse built in 1797.


To generations of Glaswegians, Wemyss Bay was the gateway to ‘doon the watter’ – the resorts of the Clyde – and to this day the very name evokes memories of childhood holidays in many a western Scottish breast. Wemyss Bay is one of the main passenger ports on the Clyde, the place from which the famous paddle-steamers sailed – Duchess of Hamilton, Caledonia, Marchioness of Lome, Queen Mary 11, Glen Sannox and the rest -their rakish funnels pouring banners of smoke, their paddles churning the water to sparkling white and pale green as their helmsmen took them smoothly to and from the pierheads.

Sadly, the paddle-steamers are all gone now, except one, the Waverley. But their spirit is kept very much alive by the lovely Edwardian station and pier which, with their fresh paint, glass roofs and banks of flowers, resemble a conservatory; there is even a greenhouse beside the ticket office. Then, down the glass-covered tunnel con- necting the two, where the water glints beneath the floorboards, the magnificently carved crests of the old steamers are lined up, their heraldic colours of scarlet, gold and azure gleaming as freshly as ever. Beside them, there are photographs of the ships in their heyday – racing from Dunoon perhaps, or in dull wartime grey on their way to lift troops off the beaches at Dunkirk.


This cheerful little resort has a red, rocky beach – but the rocks are flat, and therefore good for sunbathing and picnicking. The outstanding building is a large, turreted, red-sandstone structure, about the size of an abbey, that stands among woods at the top of the cliffs. It was one of the leading Clyde ‘hydropathics’, to which middle-class Glaswegians repaired for austere holidays that involved a large number of seawater baths. From the 1860s to the 1930s these early ‘health farms’ played an important role in the social life of Glasgow.


The town’s long esplanade above its stony beach offers boat trips, fishing trips, shellfish stalls, amusement arcades and all the fun of the fair. A monument known locally as ‘The Pencil’ commemorates the Battle of Largs and recalls the stormy day in 1263 when a Viking fleet commanded by King Haakon of Norway was driven ashore and bloodily defeated by the Scottish western levies under Alexander III.

Sheltered by the Cumbraes, Largs has some of the best sailing in Britain, with frequent regattas from the end of May to the middle of September. Just inland is the Inverclyde National Sports Training Centre. Its primary function is to run courses for coaches and physical training instructors, and to train promising athletes to international standard.


Whatever the maps say about Great and Little, the islands are known along the Clyde as Big and Wee Cumbrae. The smaller island, with its 18th-century lighthouse and ruined castle, is visited only by yachtsmen, fishermen and divers. Big Cumbrae, however, is some 5 square miles in extent, a lovely patchwork of wide fields embracing Millport, a perfect little holiday resort, and the smallest cathedral – the Cathedral of the Isles – in Scotland. There is an 18-hole golf course, the sands are good and the bathing safe; even the great basking sharks that frequently cruise round the islands are harmless.

The Cumbraes are reached by ferry from Largs.


The little village is overshadowed by giants of modern industry. They include Hunt-erston Nuclear Power Station and a huge iron-ore complex with a conveyor belt a mile or so long that carries ore from the jetty to the dump. They are linked by a rocky beach off which dinghies are moored.

A little way inland is the Kelburn Country Centre, which incorporates a glen through which the little Kel Burn falls 700 ft from the moors to the sea in a series of waterfalls. The gardens are magnificent, containing rhododendrons, azaleas and other shrubs and plants that provide a continuous display of colour from January to June. The centre also has a museum, a weaver’s workshop, a pets’ corner, walks with splendid views over the Clyde, pony treks, guided nature walks and an adventure course.

In the harbour at Fairlie there is an old-established boatyard, and it was there in the 1890s that Glasgow’s hero, Sir Thomas (’Tommy’) Lipton, built his famous ocean-racing yachts Shamrock I and Shamrock II. Born in a Glasgow tenement, Lipton made a fortune in the grocery business, then spent a great deal of it on trying unsuccessfully to win the America’s Cup yachting trophy for Britain.


The two villages are linked by modern housing, among which stand the sad, boarded-up remains of Law Castle, a 15th-century tower house. At the bottom of the hill, in Seamill, some of the houses are Victorian Scottish baronial, with red-sandstone turrets looking down steep gardens to the golf links. Below the coast road are the red-gold, boulder-strewn sands of Ardneil Bay.

The north end of the bay is protected by Farland Head, on which stands the little sea-washed hamlet of Portencross, with its ruined 15th-century castle. Just to the east of the castle is a vitrified fort, one of those Iron Age curiosities that occur throughout Scotland. Was the stone of their walls melted by accident or design? One theory is that the forts were built of alternate layers of timber and stone to give them resilience under catapult attack, and that when the buildings were fired – during a siege or deliberately by the occupants – the heat produced by the burning timber caused the stones to fuse together.


The town is a deliberate piece of town planning by the Earl of Eglinton in 1805, as is still evident in the many good, square stone houses around the great sandy sweep of South Bay. Offshore is the hump of Horse Isle, a nature reserve.

Ardrossan is deeply interested in tourism – hence its indoor bowling club and nearby golf driving range, and its good moorings. But it also possesses a large oil depot, and its harbour is an important passenger and cargo terminus.


One of Glasgow’s favourite weekend escapes, Saltcoats is a busy, bustling, cheery seaside resort with plenty of amusements and cafes, and an indoor swimming pool. The handsome wall about the rocky harbour was erected in 1686, and the harbour contains a number of fossilised trees, visible at low tide. There is good fishing around Saltcoats, both from the rocks and from boats.


Once the main port of Glasgow, before the River Clyde was deepened in the 18th century, Irvine is today lively in its pursuit of leisure, both indoor and outdoor. Near the old Tide Signal Station is the Magnum Leisure Centre, which offers indoor swimming, bowls, a curling rink, squash, a rifle-range and a fitness salon. The surrounding Irvine Beach Park offers boating and all kinds of water sports, sea and river angling, sand yachting and safe bathing along miles of open beaches. The West of Scotland Maritime Museum, in Irvine’s eastern harbour, traces shipbuilding history from the driftwood craft of the Isles to the steamships of the Clyde.


This small, pretty town is notable for its towered and turreted red-sandstone Victorian houses that look upon the sea to one side and upon five golf courses to the other. The most famous belongs to the Royal Troon Golf Club, a frequent host to the British Open Championship and other international contests.

The marina, a large harbour with a forest of dinghy masts, offers berths, chandlery, saunas, squash and a windsurfing school; near by there are opportunities for tennis, bowling and sea-angling. Divided by the rocky promontory that gives the town its name (Iran/u being Old Welsh for ‘nose’) are the wide sands of North Bay, or Barassie Bay, and South Bay, that provide safe bathing.


Each year in September, Norwegians visit Largs to attend celebrations held to mark the end of the Viking domination of Scotland 700 years ago. The festivities include the re-enactment of the Battle of Largs, the burning of a longship, a mock Viking funeral procession, a fireworks display and a torchlight procession.

The harbour on the promontory is industrial, concerned with sawmills and boatbuilding, and looks out to the bird sanctuary of Lady Isle.

Three miles inland from Troon are the stark ruins of Dundonald Castle, whose first occupant was Walter the Steward. He married Marjorie, daughter of Robert Bruce, giving rise to the Scottish Stuart dynasty.


Jusy as it is, Prestwick’s international airport impinges very little upon Prestwick itself, which is one of the oldest burghs in Scotland. Its most ancient building is the ruined church of St Nicholas, which probably dates from the 12th century, while its Mercat Cross cannot be more than a century younger.

On the shore side of the Ayr Road is Bruce’s Well, whose waters are said to have brought relief to Robert Bruce, who suffered from a disease resembling leprosy. The ruins beside it are those of the chapel of a leper hospital founded by the king.

Prestwick is a neat, bright town with good shops, and a promenade running round the gentle curve of Ayr Bay. The tawny sands of the bay provide safe bathing, and sailing and windsurfing are popular. The thyme-scented golf links that run down to the beach are those on which the first Open Championship was played in 1860, and club members have included the Duke of Windsor and President Eisenhower. There is an excellent indoor bowling stadium.